Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gay, gay, marrions-les

France is about to legalize gay marriage. This has caused some turmoil in some part of the opinion and the right wing opposition bitterly opposes it, mostly, I think, to show they are indeed the Opposition. Indeed, the very fact that a measure which concerns only 5% of the population has become, in the middle of a major economic crisis, one of the focuses of our collective conversation tells a lot about how impotent our rulers have become. As for me, I tend to favor it, first because it does benefit a sizable part of the population and fails to impact the rest in any meaningful way, and second, because it is the logical conclusion of the choices our civilization made three centuries ago, namely that marriage was the coronation of love and that homosexuality was an identity rather than a practice. This is, by the way a recent development, the advent of which correlates with the advent of modern Western culture and of industrial civilization... which of course begs the question : what will be the future of gay marriage, or even of gayness in the deindustrial future.

Homosexuality is a fact of nature. Some of us, male or female, are sexually attracted, exclusively or not, by members of our own sex. This probably genetic in origin and not necessarily a bug. Whatever causes homosexuality generally results in the affected people having less children, obviously, so it must be somehow beneficial to their kin or their cultural group, otherwise it would have been weeded out of the genetic pool long ago. The way societies deal with it, however, vary considerably. Some ignore its existence. Breton, for instance has no word for “lesbian” and its words for “male homosexual” are all recent loanwords, which is definitely weird for a language which as many words for “beautiful woman” as Inuit has for snow. Others, such as some native American tribes , used work gender roles to hide away the sexual aspect of the question. Others still relegated it to the margins of society to eliminate the problem it posed, Islam, for instance or the medieval West.

Modern Western civilization, and its imitators all over the world, is the only one to have created a whole social identity around it.

Roman Emperor Hadrian had a long affair with Bithynian Greek youth, Antinous, yet was not considered as an homosexual in the modern sense of the word. He was just a normal man who happened to have a relationship with a boy, which was perfectly legit as long as he did not adopt a submissive role. To quote Gibbon “[O]f the first fifteen emperors, Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct." One of his successors, Elagabalus, publicly lived with a charioteer whom he referred to as his husband. He was reviled, not because of his choice of partner – not different from Hadrian’s – but because he assumed a feminine, submissive role. He was not gay, but effeminate, a qualification which emphatically did not correlate with homosexuality.

It was also true in pre-modern Europe, even if , of course, the society as a whole was far more repressive. The effeminate XVIIth century fop was a womanizer, while the English Restoration rake courted (or bought) boys as well as girls. It was only during the late XVIIth century that appeared, in England, France and the Dutch Republic, the now familiar figure of the “Molly”, that is the effeminate homosexual male, with an identity and subculture based upon his choice of partners.

This happened just as those three countries where laying the foundation of modern capitalism. They were not industrialized but a better mastery of of wind and water power, as well as ruthless resource grabbing all over the world, enabled them to concentrate into their hands a disproportionate share of the world’s resources. This allowed them to field large armies and navies, to better control their population and to complexify their societies. This also triggered a number of social changes, notably in gender roles. Humans, like most apes, are sexually dimorphic, which results in differentiated gender roles. Basically, in paleolithic societies, males were hunter and fighters and competed for resources while females took care of the home-front and competed for attention from the best providers – the latter fact is important, even though it is overlooked by your average macho ; in most species females are drab and passive, ours have been selected for assertiveness. The neolithic revolution complexified things considerably as various decisions about who was going to do what led to very different gender roles accord to the society. That’s why you had Greek Gynaecea and Scythian amazons. Of course, even then, there were considerable overlaps, and a significant number of outliers. That’s why we had Aspasia and Sapho. And from time to time, a whole society could undergo a shift in gender roles.

That is what happened in early modern Europe. As societies got richer, it became possible for upper, and upper middle class women to opt out of the domestic economy. This was certainly advantageous for them, but by doing so they put an ever larger distance between the home, and therefore married life, and the public square. The result, as Michel Foucault argue was that while prior to the 18th century, discourse on sexuality focused on the productive role of the married couple In the 18th and 19th centuries society took an increasing interest in sexualities that did not fit within this union. This led to an increasing categorization of "perverts"; where previously a man who engaged in same-sex activities would be labeled as an individual who succumbed to the sin of sodomy, now they would be categorized into a new "species", that of the homosexual. The result was both increased repression and a cementing of gay identity.

Westernization caused a similar process in many non-western societies, even though the result were sometimes different. Thailand is typical in that matter. The kingdom, once a major power, was never colonized but was nevertheless subject to intense pressures from both France and Britain and to avoid sharing the fate of its main competitors, Vietnam and Burma, it adopted a strategy social critic Sulak Sivaraksa called 'fighting wolves by donning their clothing'. This included the imposition by the state of western gender roles and sexual norms, notably a strict differentiation between men and women – before that, all western travelers insisted on the “masculine” looks of Thai women, whose dress differed little from the men’s. Moreover, economic modernization was accompanied by a genderization of jobs, while in traditional Thai society agricultural work had been relatively ungendered.

The result has been a polarization of gender roles and norms and the birth of a special class of transvestites / transgenders who adopted the behavior and look of western women, or rather what they thought to be the behavior and look of western women, namely the kathoey. A similar process occurred in Tonga with the fakaleiti, a class of transsexuals / effeminate men who emerged out of a previous category of men who enjoyed traditionally feminine jobs in the wake of westernization.

Where things become interesting is that gender roles and norms will likely be as affected by the energy descent as they were by the birth of modern western culture or its arrival on such or such far shore, and so will gayness, or kathoey-ness for that matter. It is easy to see why. As the flow of high grade energy which still keeps our complex societies working dries up, we will be forced to scale down our economies. This means that our societies will become a lot less complex and that our economy will focus out of services toward industry then agriculture. A lot of jobs will simply disappear and domestic economy will make a big come back. This is bound to create a shift in gender roles on the same scale as the one we experienced at the beginning of the modern age or during the seventies. It is impossible to predict the details of this shift and it will doubtlessly vary according to local culture and conditions. The typically western idea that teaching and secretarial work are "women’s jobs” may have interesting consequences several centuries down the road for instance, when a scholarly tradition will have to be revived by teachers and private secretaries.

What is certain, however, is that there will be a return to the domestic economy and that the home, the family and the community will be put back at the center of the society. After the inevitable demise of the welfare state – or of its corporate rivals – there will simply not be no other way to survive rough times. A new repartition of roles between men and women inside the domestic economy will emerge and with it new definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman. These definitions will be based on biology, of course, but there too there will be considerable variations in time and space.

It is unlikely, however, that gayness, as a specific identity, survives such a shift. Human sexuality being fluid, there will be humans with homosexual leaning until the extinction of the species, but in a differently gendered social environment, they will no longer consider their preferred choice of partner as a fundamental element of their identity. Basically, gayness will fade with the culture which has created it.

That does not mean that homosexual people will be persecuted in the post-collapse world (even though they may and will be in some areas), nor that gay marriage will go the way of gay identity. Again it may and will in some areas, but it is not a necessity. Its main interest is that it integrates what was previously a deviance into the world of home and family which will be central in the future.

In fact it may be this integration which will guarantee the survival of gay marriage / coupling and the continued acceptance of homosexuals in some mainstream societies. Separatism of any kind has no place in a society where community cohesion is literally vital but the argument cuts both ways. In such a society it would be stupid to exclude otherwise productive people on the basis of their choice of partner. Gay marriage may fade away in some culture, but where it will have become established, it will probably become just marriage, with all the obligations and responsibilities it entails. Those who will be excluded, and rightly so because they pose a real threat to community cohesion, will be promiscuous and adulterous people, no matter the sex of their targets.

In a sense, gay marriage is one of the conservative measures we need to implement if we are to socially cushion the energy descent. Of course, for the majority of the population it won’t be much, but in some circumstances, redefining normalcy will enable us to better use human resources, as well as allowing previously discriminated people to be productive members of the community, which is by no means negligible.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The importance of handwriting

As part of my midlife crisis I have taken up calligraphy (along with a lot of other vices). Like all serious arts, it is trying, hard to master and demands a lot of practice (and yes, that does mean most of modern art is just rubbish, but here I am playing captain obvious) . In fact, it is as much an a craft as art, and one, which requires, if one wants to reach a real mastery, a reasonably good command of watercolor or acrylic painting, as well as of drawing. Of course, it will be a long time before I am able to write a full letter in insular minuscule, and I will probably never have the skill of XVIIth century writing masters such as Maria Strick or Jan Van den Velde, but I feel that learning a craft is a worthwhile effort in and for itself.

There is more to that than merely learning to write in the manner of medieval Irish monks or of Stuart period writing masters. With the rise of word processors and printers, penmanship has become an endangered skill. Writing has been lost in large areas at least twice in our history : after the late bronze age collapse, when writing disappeared from both Greece and Anatolia, and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, when writing was utterly lost in what is now England. In both case it was caused by the collapse of the structures which used writing the most : the palatial economy in Mycenian Greece and the Roman administration and the Catholic Church in Dark Age Britain.

A text in sütterlin
The form of writing can also change beyond recognition, sometimes very quickly. This is what happened in Germany in 1942. Until then Germany used mostly “German script”, based upon the late medieval Fraktur and Swabacher styles. The cursive varieties, kurrent and Sütterlin had grown significantly different from our Latin script, and mutual intelligibility was, at best, problematic. Then, in 1942, Martin Borman, probably relaying an order from Hitler banned Fraktur – yes I know, the idea of Hitler banning “German script” sounds surrealist, but it’s Hitler we are talking about. Fraktur never recovered from it and survives today only among Mennonites and Amish. As a result, contemporary Germans no longer have access to diaries, books and papers anterior to WWII.

This is relevant to the coming energy descent because the form of writing is highly dependent upon technology. Romans used a brush for monumental inscriptions and a sharpened reed for books and informal writings. They also had three distinct scripts. The highly complex Imperial Majuscule was drawn with a brush, mostly in monumental inscriptions, while the informal cursive written with a reed, as was the formal bookhand, the rustica.

The two things happened. First, Christians designed a rounder specific script for their writings, the uncial, probably inspired by Greek. Of course, when the Empire became christian in 313 AD, the uncial became the de facto standard. Second, as the Empire collapsed, Western Europe shifted from reeds and papyri to quills and parchment. While papyrus, being granular, favored angular styles, parchment allowed for more rounded letters such as the uncial and its successors such as the insular minuscule, still used for Gaelic, and the Caroline minuscule, designed by Alcuin of York, mandated by Charlemagne, to replace the various regional scripts which had developed in Western Europe after the dislocation of the Roman Empire.

The Caroline minuscule was a huge success (of course Charlemagne’s armies helped), but with time it became more and more out of touch with the needs of a world where literacy was no longer restricted to monasteries As the dark ages gave way to classical middle age, the aristocracy became more and more literate and universities were founded in large cities. There was a growing demand for books on secular subjects. These books needed to be produced quickly to keep up with demand. Caroline minuscule, though legible, was time-consuming and labour-intensive. Its large size consumed a lot of manuscript space in a time when writing materials were very costly. Hence the need for a quicker and more compact style.

Black-letters emerged during the twelfth century to fulfill that need and became dominant in Germanic countries and northern France, while a specific script, rotunda, was used in Italy.

It was from Italy that came the next revolution, which was by the way, quite reactionary in nature. At the beginning of the XVth century, there was, in Italy, a widespread feeling that humanities should return to the Roman standards – or rather what was thought to be Roman standards. Reforms were initiated by Petrarch in his 1366 essay, La Scrittura, where he defined the three qualities a writing style should have :simple (castigata), clear (clara) and orthographically correct. The trend was continued by Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, who designed the humanistic hand to transcribe recovered Latin manuscripts and by Niccolò de' Niccoli, who transformed it into the quicker italic style, which was adopted as its official script by the Papal chancery.

The invention of printing brought radical things. It made book manufacturing far easier and, more important, created a sharp divide between the book industry and the world of handwriting. For printers legibility was more important than speed of execution, and the clear humanistic hand soon became the de facto standard, leading to its adoption by scribes. Those, however, worked now mostly in law, business and administration and needed a fast, smooth script. This prompted an evolution of the italic toward rounder, more linked, script, which led to the creation of the English Round Hand in XVIIth century Britain, the basis of modern cursive writing. This was made possible by a new technology : the pointed nib. Those were at first hand-crafted from quills, then with the Industrial Revolution and the progress of metallurgy, mass produced in steel. This allowed a new writing style, with the contrast of thick and thin strokes no longer deriving from the angle of the nib but from the pressure applied to it. The poster child for this was, of course the Spencerian script, which was the de facto American business standard until it was displaced by typewriters then word processors.

That is were the problem lies, for the invention of the typewriter, then of the word processor, then of the portable computer, have considerably restricted the domain of handwriting, to the point, even in private writings. This has led to a simplification of cursive styles and to a de-emphasis of the teaching of cursive handwriting in many areas. A number of American states have even replaced it by "keyboard proficiency".

That would not be a problem if computers were here to stay. After all, Latin alphabet had undergone considerable changes since its Etruscan birth and to most of us Roman cursive cursive would look more like some weird variant of Hebrew than like our familiar "Latin" script. The problem is that computers will likely prove a transient technology and so will most of the tool we now use to write.

Computers, of course, requires a dizzying array of rare materials such as tantalum, gold or ultra-pure silicon. They also require, to be of of any use, a continuous supply of electric power. All of these will be less and less available as the capacity of our society to extract high grade net energy from their environment. As the crisis deepens, the infrastructures upon which our computerized society depends will degrade and the domain of computers will consequently shrink, probably both socially and geographically.

Many of our writing instruments won’t prove more durable, as their mass-manufacturing requires a sizable industrial base which cannot be maintained without a continuous inflow of high-grade energy. The ubiquitous ballpoint pen, for instance, was invented during the early XXth century, and is based upon the rolling action of a small sphere, which cannot be manufactured in pre-industrial conditions. You simply cannot have them without the precision manufacturing capabilities of XXth century technology.

Steel nibs, and therefore fountain pens, can be manufactured under pre-industrial conditions, but certainly not at today’s standards and certainly not at the same price. Current designs use stainless steel or gold alloys, which require a relatively large industrial base for their manufacturing. Of course, one can make them with normal steel, but they won’t last long, especially if one uses a corrosive ink, which is likely. They also will be considerably more expensive and reserved to the elite.

Pencils are simple and easily manufactured, but they require graphite, which is not exactly the commonest of material. It is mostly extracted in China and to make thing worse, it has to be beneficiated to be useful, which, without industrial acids or grinding machines, means crushing and screening the ore... by hand. This will make graphite almost as expensive as its crystallized cousin. There is only one place of the world were you can find directly usable graphite : Borrowdale in Cumbria, England. That is why the pencil industry was born in nearby Keswick. That is also why during the Napoleonic wars, the French couldn’t find a high quality pencil to save their life and had to rely on substitutes made of powdered graphite mixed with clay. Those may be available in the de-industrialized future, but don’t expect them to be cheap.

That means that in 100 years from now we may be back to reeds and quills, which will have a dramatic effect upon our style of writing. Add to that the fact that most modern ink will go with the chemical industry and will have to be replaced by carbon (read sooth) based inks or the more permanent, but potentially corrosive, gall iron ink. Neither work very well with modern pens, of course. In fact, gall iron ink will destroy most of them.

As computers become too expensive to be used for private then administrative writings, handwriting will make a comeback. Printing is probably here to stay, as its principles are relatively simple to master, even if the details are more complex. It is impractical for anything but book-making, however, and everything else will have to be done by hand. By that time, of course, the society will probably have drastically simplified, so the warlords of the salvage societies will only have to keep a few secretaries around, not a whole bureaucracy of them.

Where things become interesting is that those secretaries will be the product of the computer and printer age, when only 15 percent of american students wrote their essay answers in cursive, and only 12 percent of american teachers reported having taken a course in how to teach it. Their writing style will most likely derive from block letters (basically humanistic minuscule and imperial capitals) transformed for speed and easiness, with probably considerable regional variations, making all old handwritten documents illegible. If the presumably shrunken printing industry follows, a large a part of our heritage, including important but not immediately useful scientific or technical information, will be made inaccessible.

This is why penmanship, even though it is by nature an evolutive craft, should be preserved, as a hobby in present conditions. Thus, when penmanship becomes a marketable skill again and a new writing tradition develops anew, it will be based, at least in some areas, upon the tradition which brought us up from the monastic uncial to the round hand people of my generation have been taught at school. That will keep a bridge to the past open for the future societies when they will go out of the coming dark age and develop their own modernity.

We can no longer save our civilization, but keeping a part of its heritage may be a worthwhile endeavor.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

A few words about education

There are two major school networks in France, and a large number of minor ones. Public Schools (écoles publique), also called Secular Schools (écoles laïques), are state run and free (as in free beer). In most areas, they are the default schools and their quality is highly dependent upon their localization. Some, in suburban ghettos for instance, are dreadful, others, such as Henri IV in Paris or Clémenceau in Nantes, are elite institutions, on par with the best British public schools can offer.

Normally, the school you go to is determined by the place you live in, but, of course, there are ways to game the system, for instance by choosing rare languages. It was common knowledge in my (pretty average) high school, that those learning Russian (and later Latin) would be put in a “good class”.For the record, I learned Russian, mostly because most of my schoolmates chose English and I felt contrarian.

Private Schools, also called Free Schools (as in free speech) are run by the Catholic Church. They are particularly numerous in Western France and in a few area they are the only available ones. They are emphatically not free (as in free beer) but the fee is generally within the means of the average French working class family. They were originally created to provide their pupils with a Catholic education, and religion is still a part of the curriculum, but for most people, they are merely a higher quality alternative to the public system. If they are numerous in Brittany, even in a working class city such as my native Saint-Nazaire, it is, of course because the region used to be a stronghold of the Catholic Faith, but also because Bretons tend to invest more heavily in the education of their children and are more willing to pay for it.

Ironically, Catholic schools are more open to religious minorities than secular schools. Most are under contract with the State, which pays the wages of the teachers, and must welcome all children, whatever their religion, which in practice means that a veiled Muslim girl’s is better off in a catholic school than in a secular school where showing one’s religion is likely to get you expelled.

Universities are mostly public and secular – there are only seven Catholic universities in the whole of France. There is however a clear dichotomy between universities and the so called great schools. In France, university is relatively cheap and open to anybody who has graduated from high school. French universities are however chronically overcrowded, underfunded and understaffed and a significant percentage of the students drop out in the first couple of years. This is a feature, not a bug. Despite what politicians regularly say, the mission of the university is emphatically not to train the elite of the nation. This is the job of the Great Schools, a collection of specialized, mostly state run, institutions such as Polytechnique, Science-Po, or HEC. Those schools are not necessarily expensive but they are highly selective, so selective, in fact, there are specialized preparatory classes, the only purpose of which is to get you ready to try to enter them. Those classes are themselves highly selective (I got admitted in one of them, but due to some administrative SNAFU, I was the only candidate from Saint-Nazaire. It helped) and the workload is hellish.

Similar system evolved during the nineteenth century at around the same time in all European state, from reactionary Prussia to supposedly enlightened France and Britain, and of course the reasons for that had nothing to do with humanitarianism. Thanks to an ever growing supply of cheap energy, the advanced societies of the time created a lot middle management jobs, something earlier cultures simply could not afford. Those jobs could not be filled by illiterate peasants, hence the necessity for the western European countries which wanted to compete in the new international environment to invest heavily in education.

The school I studied at, for instance, was created after the Franco-Prussian war because a leading industrialist, Émile Boutmy, felt that Frenchmen kind of underperformed in political sciences... and that It might have had a part in the recent and somewhat embarrassing presence of Prussian soldiers in the Loire Valley.

Things were more complicated in France, however, because of the conflict between the republicans , heirs to the 1789 revolution, and the monarchist who, albeit they had accepted the inevitability of a constitutional regime, sill nurtured the nostalgia of the Ancien Régime.The Church openly favored the latter ones, which caused the republican left to become more and more anticlerical. After the overthrow of Napoleon the Third and the failure of the royalists to reinstate monarchy, the Republicans became dominant and fought a long ideological battle against the Church.

School was one of the main battlefields. France had, since the Falloux laws in 1851, a weird dual system, with some schools run by the states and some run by the Church. All were under the supervision of both the mayor and the commune's priest, and a large place was given to the representatives of the three main religions in supervisory bodies. In 1881 and 1882, however, the republican (and imperialist) Jules Ferry created a entirely state-run, free, mandatory and secular system. The state and the (Catholic) Church were separated in 1905, which started a protracted war between the "Devil's School" and the "School of Lies" for the young Frenchmen's hearts and minds.

This war lasted until 1983 when the newly elected socialist government tried to create a “big unified secular public service of education", which would have put private schools under the tutelage of the state. The Church successfully mobilized and after a mass demonstration in Paris, President Mitterrand decided to call the whole thing a day and to fire the Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy.

After that the "war of the schools" essentially disappeared from French politics . Fringe atheist groups may rant about “anti-secular laws” and Catholic fundamentalists run fringe schools where one teaches that democracy is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord. Most people, however, don’t care, and rightly so, for the real victor of the war has been neither secular civic spirit nor Christianity.

After World War II, Western European nations underwent a period of rapid growth, in a great part thanks to American oil and resources. This caused an equally rapid complexification of their societies and the creation of a lot of middle management jobs. As a consequence, the number of university students exploded, something the until then rather rigid institution was not ready for. Many of those new students were of peasant or working class background and many adopted one or another of the leftist ideologies which were in fashion at the time – maoism was particularly popular in France, even though Trotskism was a close second – while leading the same hedonistic and bohemian lifestyle as all students since François Villon. This led to the may 1968 pseudo-revolution, when Parisian students took to the street and occupied the Sorbonne because they were denied access to the girls’ dormitory (yes, no kidding, that’s how it began). They threatened for a time General De Gaulle’s regime, then found out that Frenchmen were not interested in a free love utopia when the government recovered from its initial shock and rallied its supporters.

The maoist groups lingered until the eighties, a few student leaders acquired a lasting fame, most notably Daniel Cohn-Bendit, but the most lasting result of the 1968 events has been the the invasion of the school system by the hedonistic, utilitarian and materialist ideology of the upper middle class. This invasion was progressive, of course, and teachers, as a group, are still marked by the republican ideology – in the original, philosophical, meaning of the term.

Their resistance is more and more ineffective, however. From the mid-eighties onward, ironically when the Socialist Party got into power, schools was seen less and less as a tool to train citizens and more and more as a way to choose elites and train workers according to the needs of the economy.

This is a particularly perverse evolution because, as Chistopher Lasch demonstrated, social mobility is a poor substitute for democracy. It does not question the supremacy of elites but actually promotes it. The fact that a woman of Muslim background became minister of justice in France will bring little comfort to another woman of Muslim background working part time for misery wages in a suburban supermarket. It can even make her plight harder to bear. As a woman and a Muslim, she will be told to consider Rachida Dati’s success as somehow her own (and therefore please shut up when Rachida Dati’s decisions harm her). Besides, the meritocratic mythology will brand her as a failure while legitimizing the power of the elites and justifying the said elites’ contempt for the common people.

We are light-years away from the democratic ideal, which postulates that all citizen are of equal worth and can have an equal say in public affairs.

The irony is that this happened just as France, and most other western European countries, began to develop a chronic case of mass unemployment. The global EROEI of our society had begun to decline, and unlike the United States, we couldn’t compensate by extracting more resources from our vassals. The supply of high-paying jobs suddenly dried up and the competition for those left intensified. Connections and ability to game the system (yours or your family’s) became crucial and the rift between the professional class and the rest of of the population became to widen again.

This trend is bound to continue. As the amount of energy available to society shrinks, the upper classes will fight to keep their privileges, which means driving everybody beneath them into permanent poverty. Chances are that they will use various kind of affirmative action to legitimize this power and resource grabbing operation – in fact they have already begun – and invest resources into elite replacement through education rather than in something really useful.

As our resources dwindles, so will our capacity to support not only parasitic elites, such as Wall Street traders or bankers, but also useful ones such as engineers or scientist. Our focus will have to change from building to maintaining, and for that we need the kind of skill that apprenticeship, not classroom, can teach.

We also need civic culture – what Montesquieu called virtue – if we don’t want the coming decline to be far more messy and bloody than it needs to be. That can, and must, be taught in classrooms through the study of history, literature, philosophy and sport – in short the classical education of your average Imperial British boarding schools. The purpose of such a curriculum would not be to teach marketable skills but to train citizens and provide them with the frame of common values and references they need to constitute themselves in a true civic body – and effectively contest the supremacy of whatever elite claims the right to rule at any particular time.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether collapsing societies can afford this kind of schools. They certainly won't be able to support such clumsy behemoths as the French Éducation Nationale but both Song China and Tokugawa Japan had extensive school networks and a high level of litteracy. Medieval Europe, with its (generally literate), village priests might have achieved the same result, if it had had the will.

On the long run, I fear it is this will, which will be lacking. Teachers, who have mostly become bureaucrats, have no reason to decentralize the system they live off, and elites little incentive to educate into citizenship the people the claim intellectual supremacy over. Schooling is therefore likely to remain focused on the training of cranks for a global economic machine peak energy has already doomed, and civic education likely to be more and more limited to the indoctrination of "correct thinking".

This kind of education system is bound to become more and more irrelevant as the crisis deepens and people are forced to acquire survival skills and it is easy to envision a point when it will be restricted to an elite – a process, which is well advanced in some African countries. When this elite will fall, and it will fall, what will be left of our education system will go the way of Roman rhetoric schools. Only those groups, which need their members to be formally educated – the equivalents of the medieval Church or the Britto-Roman bardic orders – will maintain educational structures.

In some areas, that may mean nobody at all if local communities don't take the matter in their own hands.

Monday, August 27, 2012

From Russia with narcissism

Summer months tend to be quite uneventful in France. We have earned the right to go on extended leaves in 1936 and consider it somewhat sacred, so everything is put on hold in July and August. The world feels no obligation, however, to follow French mores and two major events have happened during the last months, which triggered a number of quite revealing reactions, or non-reactions.

First you had this strike in a platinum mine in South-Africa, which got seriously out of hand and ended with the police shooting 34 miners dead. Then there was this trial in Russia, where three musicians from a rather obscure Riot Grrrl band got sentenced to two years in a prison colony for having staged an impromptu happening in the middle of the largest church in Moscow. Curiously, or perhaps not so curiously, Pussy Riot got a lot of support in Western countries with a lot of people demonstrating in front of Russian consulates and embassies – well, maybe not a lot, but they sure as hell got a lot of media time. Strangely, South-African consulates and embassies have remained stubbornly demonstrator-free.

The funny thing is what Pussy Riot did is also an offense in France. France is a adamantly secular state, yet, when in 2005 Act Up staged a fake gay marriage in the largest church of Paris, well, let’s say that the French courts were not amused.

The Tribunal of Grande Instance of Paris thus said it was a direct attack against freedom of religion as defined by the article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights. It also said that it was irrelevant that the stated aim of the action was not to attack religion as such but to protest against a particular policy.

Of course, the French sentence was symbolic, mostly because the Catholic Church did not push for more. Russia has been too harsh in my opinion, yet the logic behind the law against "hooliganism”, defined in Russian law as "a gross violation of public order which expresses patent contempt for society” is quite similar to the French Tribunal of Grande Instance’s. Indeed, last time I checked freedom of religion was one of the founding principles of liberal society, and that certainly includes the right to worship undisturbed. When you think about it, it is not that different either from the logic behind the recently passed Honoring America’s Veterans and Caring for Camp Lejeune Families Act, which will send you in jail if you have the dubious idea of protesting the funerals of a veteran.

There is more in this affair than a few bobos showing off their usual double standard. It has real implications for the coming energy descent, notably for what concerns the defense and furthering of functional communities. Communities are crucial to our getting through the energy descent in any reasonable shape. Bureaucratic forms of solidarity such as the French Sécurité Sociale, are bound to fail in an environment where the net energy available to society, and therefore its ability to mobilize resources structurally dwindles.

The only way to preserve some kind of safety net for those in need is by relying on organic community solidarity. Community solidarity can greatly vary in form, from Anglo-saxon fraternal societies to Islamic Zaqat, It comes with a price, however, a human price. Unlike networks – the kind of socialization favored by the elites – which put together people similar to each other, communities, in a reasonably complex societies, are made up of people with divergent, and sometimes highly divergent, values, interests, characters and life-goals. To get along, we need a basic set of common values, according to which we not only can but also must judge people – what Georges Orwell called common decency, this feeling , common to all men that there are things which simply cannot be done to fellow humans.

We need also an understanding that there are things which are both important and private, such as the choice of your life-partner or the way you worship whatever you have chosen to worship – provided, of course, those choices stay within the bounds of common decency, what pedophilia and Aztec-like human sacrifices don't, by the way.

It was those two principles Pussy Riot trampled with their, rather lame by the way, church dancing, and this, as well as the support they got, tells a lot about the way our elites see community.

Political philosophers distinguish between two kinds of liberty, which Isaiah Berlin calls respectively positive and negative liberties. Positive liberty, which is derived from Aristotle's definition of citizenship, is basically self-mastery, the right to choose one's own government and to have a say its policies, which, of course, implies a full participation in the political life of the community. Negative liberty is the right to act without interference by other persons.

Being a liberal, Isaiah Berlin argued that positive liberty was quite vulnerable to abuse by would-be philosopher-kings who conflated positive liberty with rational action, based upon a rational knowledge to which, only a certain elite or social group had access. Even a cursory look at the history of the last two centuries shows he was quite right in doing so. What he failed to see was that positive liberty could be similarly abused to serve the interests of such or such social group.

This is what I call the sadian interpretation of liberty.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade was a French aristocrat philosopher and writer of the late XVIIIth century, and for those who wonder, yes, the similarity of his name with the word sadism is not entirely coincidental. Sade is best known as a novelist, his most important work being The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism. In it, he describes the “adventures” of four “libertines”who seal themselves in a castle with a harem of sex-slaves of both genders and then proceed to rape, torture and murder them.

Needless to say, Sade spent a lot of time in jail and died in an asylum.

Sade, an educated man, was also a philosopher and wrote a number of political texts, the most important of which being an insert in his novel Philosophy in the Bedroom titled "Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans". His thesis in this short piece was that egoism, greed, violence and lust were part of human nature and should therefore be indulged without any interference by other persons. Sade even denies the community the right to regulate in any way the behavior of his members, saying “ Demanding that men unequal in character submit to equal laws is frightening : what goes for one, does not work for another” and : "Laws can be so soft, and so few, that all men, whatever their character, can submit to them”.

And if you open The 120 days, you'll quickly realize that whatever their character includes Jeffrey Dahmer's.

Of course, you can't base an healthy community on such premises, and no political thinker I know of have followed him in his serial-killer oriented theory of liberty. The assumption behind it, however, thrives in every social group which manages to insulate itself from the community as well as from the consequences of their own behavior. This was certainly the case of Sade's own social group : the French aristocracy. This is also the case of not only the various elites which lord over our civilization, but also of a significant part of the “bobo” upper middle class.

That doesn't mean that there is some elite conspiracy to replay the 120 days in a Carpathian castle, mind you, only that as they isolate themselves from the rest of us, those the current arrangements favor begin to consider themselves above the rules of common decency. This leads not only to Madoff running his scheme or Dominique Strauss-Kahn organizing orgies in a very select French hotel, but also to CEOs giving themselves totally indecent wages while the firm they run goes under, or Wall Street traders causing people to lose their jobs, or even to starve, to make a few dollars more... or a riot grrrl band trampling religious freedom just to make a political point.

And please note I am emphatically not a Christian.

The members of Pussy Riot are hardly proles. One is a computer programmer, the two others are students, and apparently not the starving kind. One of them is even a Canadian permanent resident and their activism revolves around the kind of societal issues which enable the bobos to feel good without endangering their privileges. They represent the Sadian tendencies within occidental upper middle classes who want to enjoy their hedonistic, community dissolving, lifestyle, without having to bother about such petty things as the rights of others.

The South-African miners, on the other hands are just ordinary, presumably decent, workers trying to feed their families the best they can and demanding a better salary for what is after all one of the most difficult and dangerous jobs in the world. They have no access to any cultural circle or any upper middle class network. Many speak only their (Bantu) native language and they don't understand modern art. Let's face it, they are quite boring. They represent common people, whith common hopes and common decency.

Personally, I would have sentenced Pussy Riot to long and harsh community service. That is not the problem, however. The problem is that as the net energy available to our societies shrinks, so will their ability to support large elites and middle classes. That means that a significant part of those shall lose their privileges and that the rest will secede ever more from the society they live off, becoming more and more ferocious in the defense of their interests while using various societal issues to convince themselves they are enlightened. They will be able to keep their affluent lifestyle in a shrinking economy only by pressuring ever more the working classes and pushing them ever further into poverty and precarity. To continue to feel good in such circumstances they will have to shift the definition of social progress until it includes only what betters the lot of their class.

The focus on Pussy Riot and away from the pile of corpses in South-Africa is a step more in this direction.

This is a self-defeating strategy, and one which can have drastic consequences. The populace, looking the intelligentsia using what amounts to navel-gazing to justify the defense of their privileges, will be more and more tempted to throw the baby with the bathwater and turn to authoritarian solutions to save them from liberalism. Genuine advances, such as considering gays as human beings or allowing anybody to speak one's mind in the street or in papers, will be jeopardized.

A lot may be lost because the intelligentsia prefers to clamor about the woes of a not so innocent punk band than about the murder of ordinary decent people.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Fascination for death

We are a peculiar culture. We are extremely reluctant to accept the possibility that our civilization might decline and fall, like all those which have preceded us, yet consider the idea of utterly trashing the biosphere with a fascination which would have made an early twentieth century symbolist uneasy. We have had another example of it with a paper published in the June issue of Nature.

The paper itself is quite serious. The authors' thesis is that our dumping loads of CO2 into the atmosphere will cause Earth to undergo a state-shift, that is, that the climate of the planet will, abruptly, become something totally different. It is quite possible. In fact, given our remarkable ability to do nothing to make our lifestyle more sustainable, it is quite likely.

The problem is the way it was relayed. Thus, in the (highly reputable) French paper Les Echos, we could read La fin du monde en 2100 ?, which translates as The End of the World in 2100 ?. The idea is that the change will be so dramatic and so brutal, that life will be unable to adapt and we will be left with with a warmer version of Mars.

At this point, it may be interesting to go back a bit in time, say 250 millions years. Then most
land masses were collected in a single super-continent, which, like most super-continents erred on the dry side. This did not keep, mostly reptilian, life from thriving, with such specimens as inostrancevia a bear-sized reptile with 12 cm long saber-teeth. The vegetation was not exactly lush but there were still vast expenses of forests, mostly in the south.

It was not a paradise, especially if you stumbled on a inostrancevia in a dark wood in the middle of the night, but it was a functional world, with functional ecosystems.

Then, everything which could possibly go wrong did.

A magma plume burst through what would become Siberia, burning through the largest coal seam of the time. The Siberian traps, as they are cold, covered 2 millions km² with lava and released an embarrassing surplus CO2 into the atmosphere – enough to raise global temperatures by 5°C. This was enough to destabilize oceanic methane clathrate, send a lot of methane into the atmosphere and turn an already hot and dry world into something reminiscent of Arakis.
  The oceans became severely deficient in oxygen, but unfortunately not quite dead. Its normal inhabitants were just replaced by hydrogen sulfide producing bacteria. The oxygen level in the atmosphere plummeted, making life quite difficult for those few animals which had not been baked to death.

Yet life could survive in a overheated desert bordered by a steaming ocean and surrounded by a poisoned atmosphere, and did.

Hard as we try, we can't even get close to the disaster that was the Great Dying, as the Late Permian extinction is called. The best – or rather the worst – we can expect is a speedy return to the hothouse conditions that were the norm during most of Earth's history.

It may comes as a surprise for most of you, but our planet is going through an ice age, an unusually cold and dry period, with a low biodiversity. The climate has been getting colder and colder for the last 30 million years and had the trend continued, we would have been headed toward a full-fledged glacial period, a few tens of thousands years from now. It seems we'll get a swamp and jungle world instead, with some deserts as well, and a lot of shallow seas. It will be teeming with life, probably more so than ours.

Of course, a lot of species will disappear during the transition, like at the end of the last glacial period or during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Others will prosper, as did our ancestors at the beginning of the Eocene.

The problem, is that most crops we are dependent upon have evolved in a Mediterranean setting and won't fare well in the new environment, not to speak, naturally of the slow invasion of the lowlands by the sea.

We won”t be able to use our usual strategy of social complexification and investment into technology. We don't have the resources we need to face the situation this way, even today, just after what was probably the peak of our power and richness. With the beginning of the energy descent our capacity to make investments to face such or such emergency while keeping our infrastructures in working order will shrink. At some point, we will probably be obliged to dismantle vital infrastructures, or allow them to decay, to free the resources we desperately need to keep short term crisis from spiraling out of control.

One can even argue that it is what is happening right now with the slow unraveling of the welfare state and the shrinking of public services in Europe.

The only strategy which will work in the long run is the one our ancestors used before the European expansion : cultural diversification and local adaptation. Since local conditions will have changed nearly everywhere, that means hat all cultures will have to reshape themselves, probably beyond recognition.

And yes, that is also true for so-called traditional or tribal cultures. After all, you cannot stay seal hunting Inuits if your glaciers have turned into alpine meadows and pine forests. You can, however, become Kalaallisut speaking herders and fishers.

But Inuit culture will be essentially dead, as will be all other modern cultures.

It is probably because, as a civilization we somehow feel this, that we have such a fascination for death, a fascination which manifests itself through zombies and vampire movies as well as through Les Echos's apocalyptic vision of a lifeless Earth. We, as a civilization, feel that something, big, and dark, and terrible is coming. We don't know what it is, we don't know when it will strike, but strike it will and it will destroy everything in its wake, a destruction we both fear and relish.

It is not an unprecedented feeling. It was particularly widespread in the Russian intelligentsia before 1914. The country was rapidly industrializing and while the countryside was still backward, a modern middle class was growing in the cities, as well as a radicalizing working class which would latter swell the ranks of the Red Guards during the October putsch.

Yet the government was controlled by an aristocratic clique headed by a brutal – and incompetent – autocrat right from the XVIIth century. The contradiction was so glaring that it was obvious to everybody that something was to happen. Few if any people expected this something to take the form of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, but most felt that it would be destructive, and many welcomed this coming destruction, not as a renewal, but for itself.
Thus, the poet Alexander Blok exclaimed after hearing about the sinking of the Titanic : “the ocean is alive !”. In case you wonder, it was an expression of joy.

In one of his latter poems, The Twelve, written in January 1918, where he describes the bloody march of twelve red guards as a mystical event, the same Alexander Blok writes :

Crack ~ crack ~ crack!
Crack ~ crack ~ crack!
... So they march with sovereign tread ...
Behind them limps the hungry dog,
and wrapped in wild snow at their head
carrying a blood-red flag ~
soft-footed where the blizzard swirls,
invulnerable where bullets crossed ~
crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls,
a flowery diadem of frost,
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ.

The problem is that where Blok took a pen, others took a gun and acted out on these necrophiliac tendencies, leading to both the Bolshevik hell and the Nazi death cult. It is perfectly possible that the present fascination with death leads to similar results – similar, not identical, Nazism and Communism are spent forces but the impulses behind them are well alive.

It is easy to imagine a radical movement emerging from those apocalyptic fantasies and promising to exorcise them by bringing about the same kind of storm which engulfed early twentieth century Russia. It is also easy to see how such a movement could get into power when the present ruling class will have sufficiently undermined its own legitimacy.

This would be a massive disaster, on many levels. What we need is a pragmatic policy aimed at cushioning the descent and at making it as bearable as possible for the common people, without any delusion about what we can do and hope for. This may, and probably will, imply the removal of the present kleptocracy, but this is quite incompatible with the kind of ideological fantasies which generally emerge from apocalyptic feelings.

The first step in avoiding them is to recognize that our actions have only a limited influence upon the fate of the Earth and our delusions of power are just that, delusions. Then we might begin to lead meaningful lives, within the strict bounds set upon us by the laws of Nature.

As for the Earth, well, as Sara Teasdale said :

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.